Digital dead body management: A new issue for human rights research
Kristin Bergtora Sandvik
This post explores how the digitization of the human rights field might re-shape ideas about death and the practices of care and control of the dead in the international space.
Effective, safe, and dignified dead body management (DBM) in the context of disasters, atrocities, and wars is an important task for the humanitarian sector, but increasingly also for the human rights community. In the context of the accelerating digitization of global governance, this blog post explores the notion of “digital dead body management” (DDBM) as a new topic for human rights research.
The proliferation of powerful information communication technologies (ICTs) dramatically changes how the international community identifies those in need and provides aid and protection: these changes include experimenting with blockchain technology to provide cash transfers; the deployment of drones for surveillance and health care provision; the use of biometrics to register and track assistance through iris scans and fingerprinting, and remotely controlled wearable drug delivery systems. My point of departure from existing discourse is that the use of digital technologies creates “digital bodies” — assemblages of images, information, biometrics (facial recognition, fingerprints, and iris scans), and other data stored in digital space — that represent, track, monitor, and quantify the physical bodies of individuals affected by conflict and disasters. There is an emergent scholarly consensus that our digital bodies should be understood as “real.” Ethicists argue for regarding private data as “ours” in the sense of ‘‘our body’’: we are our own information and our personal data are our informational bodies.
Death is chaotic and frequent in emergencies. Fatalities outside locations monitored by government or humanitarian actors often go unrecorded. Digital bodies, however, do not die with their human hosts. Historically, dead body management has focused on the integrity of the dead human body, identification and information sharing about identity, and respectful disposal. International humanitarian law requires that dead bodies should be searched for, collected, identified, and returned to their families. Breaches of DBM obligations include the mistreatment of bodies and leaving them to be desecrated, unlawful or unsanctioned exhumation, the destruction or concealment of graves, sabotage of identification efforts, and a failure to organize information collection procedures or share information.
In this blog, I take up the view that while human rights belong to the living, the dead should be afforded residual rights of dignity and respect. This implies that there is also a duty of care for the digital bodies of the dead. From a human rights perspective, what does it mean to imagine the orderly and ethical termination, archiving, or preservation of digital bodies? To begin to reflect on these issues, I consider two problems of interest to a human rights approach to DDBM: digital dead body management and global equality, and the problem of competing interests. While humanitarians and human rights people want to “do good,” that is not necessarily the same type of doing or the same kind of good.
Digital dead body management as a global equality problem
The first problem concerns the structural difference between how “digital deaths” are dealt with in emergencies and in the marketplace, with a focus on DDBM as a problem of global equality. The management of digital identities after death is becoming a significant governance challenge for the global technology sector, with the appearance of thousands of ghost-accounts every day. The orphaning of platforms, potentially turning them into digital graveyards, leads to the loss of revenue, which decreases the financial ability and willingness to protect customer data, and results in cyber insecurity and less care for digital bodies. In response, over the last decade, digital death has become a site of intense commercial opportunity and activity. Efforts to commercialize deaths in cyberspace revolve around putting people’s digital affairs in order as physical owners die and facilitating continued generation of traffic around digital avatars and capitalizing on registered data through data-mining and re-bundling. A “digital afterlife industry” has developed out of responding to user needs created by social media. A growing body of scholarship addresses the ethical, social, and cultural aspects of post-mortem digital identities and questions surrounding their status and future. Few, if any, contributions are concerned with digital afterlives in the global South and those dying in conflict zones.
We must think about the management of digital afterlife in emergencies because this is rapidly becoming a global inequality problem. Digital death management is wholly geared towards individual paying customers with digital assets. In comparison, aid recipients and displaced people seeking protection must agree to their transformation into digital bodies as a condition of receiving assistance, and have very limited agency in managing their own data. Those who die in conflict, fragile settings, or disasters are the invisible dead, those officially registered as dead in camp settings, or whose bodies are located or exhumed, and those who end up registered as disappeared or missing. For the purposes of DDBM, an important general feature of the large aid databases run by international actors like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and World Food Program appears to be that, while beneficiary data are archived, they are not deleted. There are two reasons for this: the systems are bad at ascertaining who is no longer in need of services and, by their very nature, they belong to an ecosystem with a high death rate and poor government ability to register deaths. In addition, there is negligible policy attention to digital dead bodies in the digital aid ecosystem and a corresponding lack of political interest in investing in managing the digital dead bodies of marginalized people. Importantly, at present there is also little clarity on sharing, maintenance, and cyber security obligations.
DDBM as a problem of competing interests
The second problem concerns the possibility that tension will arise between how different “do-good” actors approach DDBM. While there are considerable overlaps between these communities, to make sense of the digital transformation of human rights practice, attention should also be given to where they might diverge. In tandem with the general “humanization” of international law, there has been a “humanization” of DBM to encompass international criminal law (focusing on investigating the dead) and international human rights (focusing on identifying the missing). This entails a greater focus on the needs of individuals and communities for meaningful DBM, not only as a technical concept but as a vehicle for justice. This co-existence of multiple normative frameworks also produces tensions, for example, when exhumation or forensic examination of remains collide with the cultural sensibilities, norms, needs, and traditions of local communities or families. Within DBM, the humanitarian objective is to recover, identify, and repatriate bodies. For human rights, some objectives are to determine the cause of death, assign criminal responsibility through prosecution, and allocate reparations, among others. Will similar tensions arise with a human rights-based DDBM as opposed to a humanitarian DDBM?
There is a need to consider differences in the aims and objectives of data collection. For human rights activists, public advocacy and taking sides, giving testimony about violations, and helping to give victims a voice are key pursuits. The human rights movement is about providing accountability and justice through international human rights law and core principles of non-discrimination. Humanitarianism aims to address present needs, save lives, and to protect civilians from suffering, but has no theoretical interest in the relationship between justice and peace. While humanitarianism has a problem with any “politicization” of emergencies and mass atrocities which gets in the way of alleviating suffering and responding to human need, the human rights outlook can see all sorts of possible tradeoffs in the interests of securing formal rights protection. Where humanitarians embrace principles of neutrality and impartiality, the human rights community aims to produce accurate and credible information about rights violations, providing “truth” in response to mass atrocities. These differences are significant in terms of the ultimate ends for which digital bodies can be used for, and the justifications for using data for secondary objectives – or for objectives that were not considered at the time of collection.
While humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross have historically been the custodians of data on dead people, the multiple uses for digital bodies across the sub-fields of global governance, and their potential commercial value, are something radically new. It is in this context of lax data governance and disempowered data producers that humanitarian data reservoirs—and the indeterminate shelf life of individual digital bodies—also offer potentially important possibilities for human rights actors to accomplish their mission to investigate human rights violations and contribute to accountability and justice.
There are possibly significant tensions between how service providers (humanitarians) and truth and justice providers (the human rights community) approach data collected by humanitarian actors in emergencies. Because their missions are different, the sectors have very different perceptions of whom they can legitimately extract, borrow, or receive data from, and the type of institutional resistance they should put up against other actors’ approaches. The trade-offs and costs involved in this type of engagement will often be difficult to assess properly: for humanitarian actors, the idea of human rights actors appropriating beneficiary data is unattractive, as it threatens neutrality and impartiality and may cause harm to beneficiaries by limiting humanitarian access. For human rights actors, such access to data appears attractive and useful, at least in the short term. However, I suggest that, although the dead “do not have human rights,” we should pay attention to the conditions under which the data are extracted and (re)appropriated and the type of ethical problems this might cause for human rights practice. Understanding where dilemmas arise is important for developing a critical understanding of the digitization of the human rights field.
Human rights practitioners must engage in a debate about what kind of ethical norms and principles should guide the use of dead people’s data, including the appropriation of data across sectors. Presently, there is a lack of widespread understanding of what digital bodies are, along with a failure to think about dignity and respect as being integral to digital bodies and fundamental to the management of digital dead bodies. In order to critically articulate and pursue a human rights research agenda on DDBM, we need more empirical research that carefully describes the capabilities and frameworks of existing data platforms, how the data is passed on, and how different actors deal with dead users and their data.
 The blog post is based on insights on DDBM from the “Do no harm: Ethical humanitarian innovation and digital bodies” project at PRIO.
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 For example, UNHCR’s 2015 data protection policy is not concerned with death beyond the data subject’s duty to inform UNHCR about deaths leading to changes in his or her civil status (here). The access policy to UNHCR’s archives only focuses on accessing the files of presumed deceased persons of concern. Annex C: Guidelines on Access to UNHCR Archives (here).
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